In the play Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot, the fourth tempter comes to Thomas Becket and after some conversation between them the fourth tempter says

You know and do not know, what is it to act or suffer.
You know and do not know, that acting is suffering,
And suffering action. Neither does the actor suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.

I found after some research that in 1930s T.S. Eliot was going through some spiritual crisis and dilemmas and this play is one of the manifestation of his inner battle with/for spirituality. So, it seems that the fourth tempter is saying something spiritual by those words (well, of course, his advice was spiritual, he asked Thomas to become a martyr and enjoy the heaven) but I really am unable to make sense of those words, they are self contradictory (“you know and do not know”).

Just after this the tempter’s parts ends and Chorus comes once again, this shows that those lines must be important as they are last of tempter.

  • Well I would prefer an incomplete (personal answer) than to receive no answer at all [because educated people here (no irony intended I really know that people here have great literary knowledge) think that a complete answer will be controversial] Mar 16, 2020 at 6:53
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    I don't know whether this helps at all, but Eliot liked antitheses (as did Baudelaire, one of his influences). There's a contradiction between being patient and acting. There's the same contradiction for a wheel between being still and turning. And there's a contradiction between knowing and not knowing.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 16, 2020 at 17:02
  • @PeterShor Yes, you’re right he seems to be very fond of antitheses, but what idea does those contradictory words convey ? Mar 16, 2020 at 17:23
  • A person can know something subconsciously and not know it consciously, or know it and act not knowing it. Mar 16, 2020 at 17:44
  • @MichaelHarvey I think that subconscious explanation fits better here. Mar 16, 2020 at 17:45

2 Answers 2


In interpreting these lines, it's important to bear in mind exactly what the Fourth Tempter is trying to do. All the Tempters are showing Thomas a false path -- a path that will lead to damnation. Their temptations grow progressively more subtle, until the Fourth Tempter arrives. Remember that when the Fourth Tempter first appears, Thomas is surprised:

Who are you? I expected Three visitors, not four.

The Fourth Tempter thus represents a temptation that comes from very deep inside Thomas's own mind, deep enough that he has never confronted the possibility the Tempter represents. The Tempter points out that Thomas has considered the glory of martyrdom before ("You have thought of that too"). But he hasn't allowed the thought to become conscious. Perhaps for a long time it wasn't relevant, but now that it's becoming a real possibility, he's actively resisting it. Once he has the thought, it becomes possible for him to seek martyrdom for selfish reasons -- for the sake of lasting personal glory. To be martyred because the alternative was to betray God is one thing; to be martyred because you like the idea of being a saint... Well, as Thomas puts it himself:

The last temptation is the greatest treason; To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

It's vital to look at the immediate context, too. Thomas has just said to the Tempter:

Can I neither act nor suffer Without perdition?

The previous tempters wanted Thomas to do something: to act. The Fourth Tempter wants Thomas to endure something: to suffer. Thomas is dismayed, because he had thought that by not taking action he could avoid damnation. But in this speech, the Fourth Tempter points out that there isn't really a definitive difference between acting and suffering. The actor (the one who acts) must also be a patient (one who suffers). And the same applies in reverse. In effect, the Fourth Tempter is trying to convince Thomas that there is no way to avoid responsibility -- quite literally, that Thomas is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. And if it is, in fact, impossible to avoid damnation, Thomas might as well go down in a blaze of glory, and seek martyrdom for the sake of later sanctification.

But finally, it's important to recognise that Eliot isn't trying to present the Fourth Tempter as being fundamentally right. All the Tempters are to some degree reasonable, all of them have something genuinely tempting to offer. But their view of the world is skewed and incomplete, and Thomas ultimately manages to resist all of them. His final speech in Part 1 includes the line

I shall no longer act or suffer, to the sword's end.

In other words, the Tempter may be right to suggest there's no bright line separating suffering from acting, but he's also wrong to imply that that leaves Thomas with no way out. I don't fully understand what Eliot means when he has Thomas say he will "no longer act or suffer" -- it's not as if Thomas dies or goes into a coma at that moment -- and I would tentatively suggest that what Eliot has in mind is something like perfect submission to God's will and complete acceptance of whatever comes next. In his sermon, later in the play, he says "A martyrdom is always the design of God." This suggests, to me at least, that Thomas can see his martyrdom coming and is accepting of it -- but is also willing to let it pass by, if it's not God's will.

  • Thank you, your answer is very nice. Can you please tell what you think about excessive use antitheses by Eliot? Mar 18, 2020 at 8:19
  • It's hard to say -- certainly it's a technique he used a lot in his poetry. I would be tempted to connect it to Hegelian philosophy, with its dialectical use of thesis, antithesis and synthesis to get at a deeper meaning. But I don't know whether Eliot ever read Hegel, so that may be a stretch! He does seem to use antithesis to hint at deeper meanings most of the time -- as in this excerpt: we think that action and suffering are opposed, but are they? Are they in fact aspects of the same underlying reality? That is the kind of pattern that Eliot's antitheses tends to follow. Apr 8, 2020 at 15:46

Of course one of the most important aspects of this is that the fourth tempter is speaking Thomas's own lines (with one omission) from 20 pages before. The fourth tempter is literally throwing Thomas's own berating of the second priest back at him to berate Thomas.

  • This does add some depth to the existing (and accepted) answer, but it's not really an alternative answer in its own right. It might have been better as a comment on the other answer. A minor quibble, but it means you may not get many upvotes. You can edit your answer to provide more detail, perhaps adding actual quotes of some of Thomas's own lines to demonstrate how the 4th Tempter is throwing them back at him. You might even explore why the Tempter is doing this. :-) May 9 at 4:47
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